What is the Essence of the Spiritual Path?

I am between topics at the moment. Just finished a few posts on karma and want to write about what an authentic spiritual teacher is next. But the first post in this series is not quite finished and I want to give myself more time to reflect on it. So I decided to just write today about my reflections over the last few days.

I usually begin my day with reflecting what my practice and my spiritual path is about. I tend to ponder about a few topics like what the goal of my practice is, renunciation, refuge, Bodhichitta, happiness e.t.c.  The topics are always very similar but there seems to be an endless variety of ways to look at them.

A few days ago I found a very inspiring section in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying on the what the spiritual path is about. At the beginning of Chapter 9 : “The Spiritual Path” Sogyal Rinpoche writes:

“In the Sufi Master Rumi’s Table Talk, there is this fierce and pointed passage:

The master said there is one thing in this world which must never be forgotten. If you were to forget everything else, but were not to forget this, there would be no cause to worry, while if you remembered, performed and attended to everything else, but forgot that one thing, you would in fact have done nothing whatsoever. It is as if a king had sent you to a country to carry out one special, specific task. You go to the country and you perform a hundred other tasks, but if you have not performed the task you were sent for, it is as if you have performed nothing at all. So man has come into the world for a particular task, and that is his purpose. If he doesn’t perform it, he will have done nothing.

All the spiritual teachers of humanity have told us the same thing, that the purpose of life on earth is to achieve union with our fundamental, enlightened nature. The “task” for which the “king” has sent us into this strange, dark country is to realize and embody our true being. There is only one way to do this, and that is to undertake the spiritual journey, with all the ardor and intelligence, courage and resolve for transformation that we can muster.”


The spiritual path is sometimes compared to an inner journey. I find this image very helpful. it seems to me that the way to give meaning to our life is to combine our outer journey with an inner journey towards becoming one with our divine nature, — our higher self, God, Buddha nature, or however we want to call it. This divine nature is already perfectly within us, but right now we have lost our connection with  it. That’s why our most important task is to reconnect with it.

For me the basis of spiritual practice is to see our potential to awaken and the shortcomings of our present way of life. This gives rise to renunciation. Usually renunciation means to leave behind worldly concerns but looking at it from another way we could say that it is about making our inner journey our priority.

When we actually begin the journey, in Buddhism the spiritual path begins with refuge. Refuge is about making a commitment to follow the path. We take refuge in the three jewels: the Buddha as our teacher and example, his teachings, the Dharma as the guidance on the path and the Sangha, the company of others who are turned towards virtue as our support.

The foundation of this is faith. Faith is about believing that this goal of union with our higher nature is achievable and that the path we are choosing to follow is leading to it. In my tradition it is emphasized that this is not a blind faith but an intelligent faith based on study, reflection, and reasoning. We test again and again through personal experience that what the teachings are saying is true and that the practice and path actually bring the result.

Refuge gives us protection from fear. When we realize that what we really are is much more than how we ordinarily see and think of ourselves, then we no longer need to fear suffering. The essence of our being can never be effected by external circumstances. However much we might try it can not be made better or more pure. And even our worst faults and suffering will not make it worse. Once we reach a full and unshakable confidence that our being is indestructible then we don’t even need to fear death any more. Thus taking our divine nature, or Buddha nature, as our refuge is the ultimate protection from fear.

Even though our nature is said to be perfect within us we need to make an effort to reconnect with it. It is a life long endeavor. We need to practice. Practice is about training and working with both mind and heart. To make our mind and heart bigger. To develop wisdom and compassion. It is about better understanding ourselves and the world around us and connecting with our good heart and fundamental goodness.

Shantideva a great Indian Buddhist saint and master famous for expounding the teachings on Bodhichitta

Besides understanding what practice is about the teachings also speak about the importance of having a good motivation. The best motivation is said to be Bodhichitta, the wish to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings. Why? What keep us separated from our true nature is our self-centeredness and selfishness. It blinds us to seeing how things are and our connectedness with not only our own divine nature but also with others.  We get preoccupied with our own interests, endlessly wanting pleasure, gain, praise, being viewed favorably by others and endlessly fighting pain, loss, criticism, and being seen negatively by others. We are driven by attachment and aversion.

This kind of happiness is usually at the expense of others. Why? It requires attaining things that are limited. Only one person can be the best. If we want to be better than others need to be worse than us. If we eat the whole cake ourselves than there is nothing left for others. The actions we engage in to bring about this kind of happiness which is based on external circumstances causes harm and brings suffering to others. We may be following the laws and customs of our society but deep down we are not very concerned how our quest for happiness affect the well being and happiness of others and whether they cause harm. We are mainly interested in our own well being. Self-centeredness not only obscures our mind but also closes our heart.

The spiritual teachings tell us that true happiness is found through getting in touch and embodying our divine nature. When we realize that this nature is already perfect within us and that fundamentally all we need is already perfectly within us this brings us inner peace and contentment. We can relax. There is nothing to fight about. There is nothing we need to get from others. What is wonderful about this deeper happiness is that it does not negatively impact others. What we need to do to uncover our true nature can be done without harming others. On the contrary it brings them happiness. Because the more we get in touch with what we truly are the more love compassion understanding and wisdom we will be sharing with those around us.

That’s why the first step in our practice is to get in touch with our good heart — a deep sense of caring and love for others, love. Compassion is the best antidote to self-centeredness. When we begin we generate the wish to find a happiness that does not cause harm others and a commitment that once we have the capacity to help others we will help everyone to find the same lasting happiness.

When we have a good understanding and a good motivation it is said that practice is almost naturally accomplished and will help us progress towards true awakening.

This entry was posted in Bodhicitta, Buddhism, zz Rumi, zz Sogyal Rinpoche and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to What is the Essence of the Spiritual Path?

  1. Amato says:

    Hi Bernie,
    Thanks for this post! It says a lot to me about the buddhist path and important topics to reflect, as Refuge 🙂

  2. Amelia says:

    Dear Bernie,
    You have such a nice way of translating the teachings into practical terms. You seem to bring so many little teachings together into a comprehensive whole. What is the essence of the spiritual path? Such a good topic to reflect on. A bit like going on a long journey and constantly having to look at ones destination and North is. Otherwise one may travel for months and months but in the wrong direction. Just as I felt really stuck in my practice, I had an amazing experience whilst listening to one of Rinpoche’s teachings. One could say, I was resting in the nature of mind… I felt quite proud, satisfied and like I achieved something great. Then I read your blog about having dramatic experiences on the spiritual path and what really matters is when you manage to change your character to the better. And that this change is the real point! Really grounded me very quickly! Thanks so much. I really do enjoy your posts. It brings together so many things for me. Amelia

  3. Mimi says:

    Dear Bernie,

    Thank you for this post (and the entire Blog). Practice, once again, has saved this day for me. Wisdom, Compassion, benefiting all sentient beings: they slip away so easily, but your gentle encouragement helps me to practice, which brings me back to the path.


  4. Thanks! And hugs to you too! Cheers Bernie

  5. Thanks for your kind words Amelia! You are very inspiring! I am glad I am sharing this path with you. Cheers Bernie

  6. Hi Mini, good to hear from you. I am glad this blog is able to share some inspiration with you. Cheers Bernie

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